Hardware My Intel Core i7 Build: The Parts

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I’m fortunate (or cursed) enough to be able to upgrade the desktop computers here at the iceflatline compound fairly often. The way this usually works is that my personal desktop computer gets overhauled and then the older parts are used to build, upgrade and/or maintain the other machines in the house – call it the “trickle down” method of upgrading.

Recently I decided it was time to start this cycle again. I had elected to skip over Intel’s X38 and X48 chipsets (and p45/p55 chipsets too) and Windows Vista, and so my computer – still based on the x975 chipset and Windows XP Pro was definitely in need of an upgrade.

This will be the first in what I intend to be three related posts documenting this upgrade – the parts I selected for it and why; the assembly of the system and the challenges I encountered; and finally, the steps taken to overclock the system.

The Parts

I’ve built a good many PCs over the years. Everything from bleeding-edge, fire breathing, water-cooled dragons to systems just fast enough to run Puppy Linux. My goal this time was to use the best quality components I could find for a low price, and build a fast, reliable machine for right around $1000 – $1500. In other words, build a machine that’s a good value. Since this was an upgrade, I also had a couple of other objectives in mind. First, since this machine, like its predecessor, would be used primarily for PC gaming and the occasional video/audio project, I wanted to upgrade the graphics capability; second, I wanted to significantly increase the amount of system memory; and finally, I wanted to use Windows 7.

The case – I’ve been a fan of Lian Li cases for some time; however, while they look great and their quality is second-to-none in my opinion, they’re not what you would characterize as a “gamer” or “enthusiast” case. This is primarily because they typically lack good cooling. I’m currently using water cooling in one of their tower cases and so the lack of good case cooling has not really posed a problem for me. However, I wanted to try and save on what I anticipated would be the cost for a new water cooling solution to fit a new motherboard and instead go with air cooling if I could. That steered me towards a mid-tower case with good air flow. I decided on the NZXT Tempest case. I had built a system for one of my kids with this case and really liked it. The three 12cm fans provide good air flow; it’s easy to work in, and it looks good.

The power supply – This was an easy one. I almost exclusively use power supplies from two manufacturers. For lower cost builds I use Fortron and for everything else I use PC Power & Cooling. I was already using a Silencer 750 in my current system so my solution here is to simply reuse this unit.

The CPU – This was a tough choice. Being somewhat of an Intel fan boy I had more or less settled on going with one of their Core i7 products. But Intel has presented a very challenging decision for the gamer/enthusiast building a new system today. Intel’s newest CPUs – code-named Lynnfield – include the 2.93GHz Core i7-870, the 2.83GHz Core i7-860, and the 2.66GHz Core i5-750. Lynnfield chips use essentially the same “Nehalem” 45 nm architecture as Intel’s other Core i7 CPUs, code-named “Bloomfield.” However, the Lynnfield CPUs are incompatible with existing Bloomfield-based Core i7 motherboards. The most notable difference is Intel’s decision to use a new socket for the Lynnfield CPUs – LGA1156, which is incompatible with the current Bloomfield-based CPUs. To make matters even worse, the fan/heatsink mounting holes for each socket type are also incompatible.

A significant advantage in using Bloomfield is Intel’s use of tri-channel DDR3 memory (to save cost, Intel uses dual-channel DDR3 for Lynnfield). So then why go with Lynnfield if a bigger memory bus is arguably better? I want a fast rig right, and I have to get a new motherboard in either case. Well, for one thing, LGA1366 motherboards aren’t cheap. Those added traces from the socket to the RAM slots to support tri-channel RAM mean more layers and pricier motherboards. Yet another factor to consider is that while Lynnfield is cheaper and gets you 90 percent the performance of a Bloomfield system, Intel will purportedly introduce a yet another new CPU skew in 2010 (“Gulftown”). This architecture supposedly adds two more physical cores to the CPU, add to that hyper-threading, and that’s 12 threads available to the OS. But alas, it will only be available on the Bloomfield/LGA1366 platform.

But, after weighing all these factors and the desire to stay true to be goal of pulling together the best system for the money, going with a Lynnfield build made the most sense to me. I chose the 2.83GHz Core i7-860, which should overclock quite well and, for ~$280.00, would seem to be the sweet spot for price versus performance. I also save at least $100 on the board and a little more on the RAM. However, I arguably give up a clearer upgrade path by passing on a Bloomfield-based system.

The Motherboard – I’ve traditionally used ASUS motherboards but then started to run into reliability problems with them. I also grew tired of the growing list of “features” their boards began to offer that I had no use for (e.g. WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.), resulting in time spent trying to disable them somehow. For my last build I used Intel’s D975XBX2, the so called “Bad Ax” board, and really liked it. No it didn’t have all the candy-ass features and overclocking capabilities of say an ASUS or Gigabyte motherboard at the time, but it turned out to be sufficiently overclockable for my needs and has been 100% reliable. Given this experience, I decided to go with an Intel motherboard again and chose their DP55KG.

The Heatsink – The Corsair Nautilus 500 water cooling solution I’m currently using, while it has served me well, wouldn’t be useable on the new LGA1156 motherboard. Besides, Intel’s latest CPUs run cooler than their predecessors and air cooling has gotten significantly more effective. So, there just wasn’t any reason in my mind to hassle with another water cooling solution for this build. However, finding a suitable fan/heatsink for an LGA1156 CPU turned out to be somewhat of a challenge. As I mentioned, the fan mounting holes for LGA1366 and LGA1156 motherboards are incompatible. So while there were plenty of options for 1366-based boards at the time I was pulling my parts together, very few of the more reputable heatsink manufactures had yet to put out parts yet that were made specifically for with newer.LGA1156. I ended up choosing the relatively inexpensive Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Rev.2 with the hope of finding something a perhaps a bit more effective in a couple of months when other companies started to release parts for the LGA1156 motherboards. I also chose Arctic Silver 5 for the thermal compound.

The RAM – One of my goals for this build was to double my system memory. That meant 8GB for this build. After all, this is supposed to be an upgrade right? I was looking for either an 8GB kit (2x4GB) or two 4GB (2x2GB) kits with the timings as low as possible. Another factor that I was glad I considered ahead of time was whether the RAM would fit under the CPU’s fan/heatsink due to the close proximity of the RAM slots to CPU. I ended up eliminated a couple of products (Corsair Dominator I’m looking at you…) because they were too tall to fit. I ended up selecting two 4GB DDR3-1600 Mushkin Redline kits from which run at 1.65v with timings that spec at 7-7-7-18.

The Graphics – I have no allegiance to either AMD or Nvidia and was willing to go with either depending on price versus performance. I ended up going with AMD this time around though and chose a Radeon 5870 from ASUS. For ~$380, I felt it provided the best performance for the money.

The Optical Drive – Believe it or not I actually had to buy one of these. The Lite On drive I’m currently using is IDE and I needed one with a SATA interface. Sadly, I guess it really is time to move on. Here’s how much time I spent shopping for it though – I went to Newegg.com, navigated to the CD/DVD burners, selected “Best Rating” from among the search options and dutifully paid for the one that was at the top of the list. I think it was from Samsung :).

The Hard Drive – This was a tough decision too. I really really wanted to get a solid state drive but with prices so high and firmware support for features like Trim so fluid I decided to stick with with my trusty Western Digital Raptors that I currently have set-up in Raid 0. I fully expect that SSD performance will improve and prices will come down soon so I plan on revisiting this at a later time.

The OS – Not much of a surprise here. I went with Windows 7 Pro 64-bit. Why the pro version and not Home Premium? Remote Desktop. Home Premium doesn’t support it and I really wanted this feature so I could easily access this machine remotely.

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s it for the parts list. Most of which I elected to get from Newegg.com. Cost, not including shipping, came in right around ~ $1400.00. Next time I’ll share my experiences with assembling the system and the challenges I encountered.

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